USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

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I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Religious leaders in Tennessee are taking a stand against a slate of legislation they view as being discriminatory toward LGBT people. 

More than 100 clergy members from across the state signed onto a statement opposing six bills before the Tennessee General Assembly this session.

"As leaders of faith communities we oppose these bills in the Tennessee General Assembly. They promote discrimination rather than justice and demean the worth of LGBTQ people in our state. We call on people of good will to join us in speaking out for basic fairness," the statement reads.

The journalist who wrote me to comment on this story asked several rather logical questions. First, there’s this:

Question: How many Christian clergy are present in Tennessee? How does this number stack up against that total of those who signed the document? We don't know, because no one apparently asked.

As always, it’s hard to get a solid answer — since there is no central clearing house (at least that I could find) for religion statistics here in the state that I call home. One government website claims that there are 600 clergy jobs in the state and 80 linked to “religious” education and activities.

That sounds really, really low to me — especially since the state’s United Methodist conference has 827 names in its clergy directory. The Roman Catholic diocese in Nashville (one of three in the state) is home to 70-plus priests.

Now, let’s get real. I have no idea how many Southern Baptist clergy there are in Tennessee — but the state convention contains 3,000-plus churches and lots of those have multiple clergy on staff. The number of independent Baptists and nondenominational evangelical congregations would double that, I would think.

We could be looking at somewhere around 12,000 or more clergy in Tennessee?

So how many clergy is 100-plus, in comparison with that total? What slice of the state’s “religious leaders” are we talking about?

Who signed this “religious leaders” petition? I would predict that this is most of the state’s oldline Protestant clergy (talking about the “Seven Sisters”), but not all of them. It would be especially interesting — in light of recent news events — to investigate how the United Methodist clergy divided up in this Bible Belt state. That would be a valid story, in and of itself. I would also look at fault lines in black churches.

But let’s keep focusing on numbers. Let’s say that the UMC clergy split 50-50 on the gay-rights issues addressed in this story. That would still give you way more than 100 names on that statewide petition. Right?

Back to our journalist-reader and his or her questions:

Did any of those other clergy oppose this document? We don't know, because no one apparently asked.

Who is claiming that the legislation is anti-LGBT? We don't know, because no one apparently asked.

Are there clergy members in the legislature? We don't know, because no one apparently asked.

It is good that the USA Today story was quite upfront about who organized this petition in opposition to a collection of GOP bills on familiar subjects — the rights of adoption agencies, bathroom privacy issues, gay marriage, etc. Thus:

he Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for the rights of LGBT people in the state, helped organize the faith leaders who signed on to the statement. 

One more question: What did church leaders have to say on the other side of these debates?

I’m talking about conservative Episcopalians (there are some), evangelical United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Missouri Synod Lutherans, alternative Presbyterians (lots of them in Tennessee), clergy in the Assemblies of God, Latter-day Saints leaders, etc.

Oh, and please include Southern Baptists. There are a few Baptists in Tennessee.

Just saying.

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